Fremont County, Iowa

Remembering Uncolored Margarine
by Lona Lewis & Evelyn Birkby

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
July 1, 2014

How many of you remember when margarine was sold uncolored? White margarine was on the market in the 1920s when I was young. It looked like lard but inside the package was a packet of yellow food coloring. The cook needed to soften the margarine and then mix the color into it to make it appetizing and look like butter.

Margarine is modified and whipped vegetable oil. In the early years, using margarine was directly related to whether you had access to cream to make butter. Ask a person who grew up on the farm and you will hear they ate butter because "we had cows and could make it."

During the Great Depression families, on tight budgets, used the spread to save money. Mashing the color into the spread was a job often assigned to children. Many people today remember kneading that white lard-like block back and forth until the entire pound of margarine was colored.

Sherry Perkins said she remembered the blocks of colorless margarine and the little packets of orange food coloring. She and her siblings made a game of tossing the package back and forth as they kneaded in the color. One time when they threw it the catcher failed to grab the bag and it fell and broke, splattering the contents on the floor. "It was not our happiest childhood moment", she laughed.

Margarine has been manufactured in the US since 1881. It is a naturally chalky white and unappetizing looking substance. The dairy and butter providers had lobbied to keep colored margarine off the shelves of grocers through a 10% tax if it was colored to look like butter. This ban was lifted in 1950 and margarine could for the first time be sold colored like butter.

I asked my food guru, Pam Nenneman, if she remembered uncolored margarine and she said "Yes indeed. It was considered one molecule removed from plastic."

"Did you know", Pam continued, "Flies won't land on margarine. You put a dish with some butter and a dish with some margarine out where there are flies and they will land on the butter but not on the margarine. Does that tell us anything?"

When margarine was first sold the issue was having access to a butter-like substance. Today, the issue is which is healthier to eat. Go on the internet and you will find 100s of entries on butter versus margarine. Margarine is heralded as having no Trans fats, saturated fats or cholesterol. So, the white chalky substance, that got no respect, is now a health food. There have been enough chemicals added to make it taste as good as butter. Today margarine has become almost as popular as butter and is now used for many food items: baking, sauces, and as a spread. A true story of how an ugly duckling became a beautiful swan.

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